Cienfuegos is a seriously underrated city. Much slower paced than Havana, Cienfuegos is in fact a delightful break from the craziness there. You will still be plagued with shouts of ‘Taxi?’ from the car and bicycle taxis (apparently tourists never walk anywhere) but that is a small price to pay. There is plenty to do around the city to fill a few days of your itinerary, whether you’re backpacking Cuba on a budget or are splashing the cash, so stay for a few days and enjoy.
What to do in Cienfuegos: The City
Cienfuegos itself isn’t that amazing, I admit. Take a couple of hours to wander around the centre, there are plenty of pretty colonial buildings and 50s cars to keep you entertained. The main square is (as usual in Cuba) filled with benches of eager Cubans and a few tourists sucking up the scant wifi signal. There were pleasantly few tourists there when I visited, although some seemingly came on group tours then swiftly left.
What to do in Cienfuegos: Punta Gorda
Outside of the centre, is the richer part of town, Punta Gorda. Take a stroll down the Paseo el Prado or make friends with a bici-taxi and he may let you have a go peddling (if the police stop you though you, or most likely he, will get hit with a hefty fine, so don’t push your luck too far). If that doesn’t appeal then just sit back and enjoy the views of the sunset from the Malecon, but be sure to make it to the end of the Punta, and up to the terrace of the Palacio de Valle restaurant for 360 degree views, and to watch the sunset.
Los Pinitos is an open-air bar/restaurant which had live music when we were there on Saturday afternoon, and most clubs will have live music too – just keep your ears open for the tell-tale rhythms and join the fun!
What to do in Cienfuegos: El Castillo
The castle is really a small fortress built to keep vicious pirates at bay. There is a boat that leaves Cienfuegos at 8am to cross the bay to reach the castle, we paid $1 cuc, although locals paid a lot less. The castle is quite interesting, but is not a must-do if you are short on time. From the castle, there is a regular ferry for another $1 cuc to the hotel at Paso Caballos, where you can jump in a rickety camion bus for 1 peso if you’re lucky, or you may have to pay more if you’re not so lucky! The road back to Cienfuegos passes Rancho Luna Beach which offers a nice break from the city, but this was far from my favourite beach. Even on a quiet day you will be approached by a lady offering massages, people selling puros (cigars), fish & lobster, shell necklaces and coco locos, and prostitutes if you are male, so it’s not the quietest spot. It’s not the cleanest beach either, a short way from the shore be careful where you tread as beer cans and glass bottles litter the sea bed.
What to do in Cienfuegos: Laguna Guanaroca
This was my highlight of Cienfuegos; on the road between Rancho Luna Beach and the city centre, you can hop off any bus or truck here – although the bus service is confusing and sporadic so ask your casa particular for advice. We came here first by taxi, arriving just after 12pm, to find that a tour had just left, and we would have to wait another couple of hours to set off. Our second trip yielded better results, arriving just before 11am, with others arriving shortly afterwards so we didn’t have to wait long. Our guide led us on a short walk through a güira orchard, whose fruit is used to make maracas, and pointed out different varieties of trees and birds before leading us down to the lake shore. Here we hopped aboard small boats and were rowed out to the other side of the lake to find the flamingos.
Out on the water there was a peace I hadn’t seen yet in Cuba. The only noise came from the paddle sliding through the water, and occasional birdsong drifting on the wind. We followed the shore for a while, then crossed to where a flock of flamingos had settled. The bizarre yet graceful birds casually wandered away from us, but as we moved closer they seemed less bothered by our presence. Here the water was only ankle-deep so we could step out of the boats and walk (carefully) closer. The birds honked to each other, stretching their long necks to sift out their food from the lake water. We stayed here for an hour or so, just watching the birds, then were rowed back to shore in a daze. After chatting to our fellow tour goers, we shared their taxi to Rancho Luna Beach – talk to everyone you meet if you are a solo traveller, chances are someone will be going the same way you are!
What to do in Cienfuegos: El Nicho
El Nicho is a set of natural pools and stunning waterfalls in the hills above Cienfuegos. A little further out of town, this is only accessible by taxi, so ask the owners of your casa to see if they can find other travellers to join and share the cost. My friend & I shared with two German brothers, and our Cuban Mama Odelys from Casa Fenix negotiated a fare of $50 CUC between the 4 of us for the hour & 15-minute drive to el Nicho and back. The taxi will wait for you to finish the circuit and drive you back to town for this price. Foreigners pay $10 cuc entrance fee to the park, and Cubans significantly less, as usual.
Follow the path next to the entrance, going up and down some steep steps to the first pool “los enamorados” (lovers), where you can take a dip now, or later on the return trip. Continue on to a wide waterfall which is great for photos, then to the largest pool & waterfall where most people gather. The circuit takes a recommended two hours, but take it easy, and do it the Cuban way – with a bottle of Havana club chilled in the cool water to enjoy. There were plenty of mosquitos, so repellent is useful for when you are in-between pools. You can also carry on to the mirador for beautiful views of the valley below.
We nearly missed out on a huge part of the park – across the road from the main entrance and car park is another path which is often overlooked, but that leads to more waterfalls, and an even more impressive set of cascades and pools. Brave (or stupid) souls can leap into the pools from above, but check with a local first to make sure which pools are deep enough for diving.
The road to el Nicho is quite scenic, bordered with verdant hedgerows and trees draped in a blanket of lush vegetation. We passed banana trees, horse-drawn carts and pigs snuffling in the soil. However, like many roads in Cuba, it was full of holes, and with windy & steep inclines, not all cars will make it to the top. We struggled in places, in what I can only describe as a sh*tbox 1982 Lada, complete with busted radiator. I could feel the heat from the engine in the front seat, and the driver had to jump our periodically and pour cold water on the engine. There were no seatbelts of course, and the lada sported a paint-stripped bonnet and a hole in the interior of the roof where a sun-roof perhaps once was. Now the rectangular hole was filled with a ‘new’ roof, and the rust dropped onto my knee every time we hit a pot-hole. We even hit a dog on the way back to town, though given the state of the car’s brakes there wasn’t anything else the driver could have done. Trauma aside, it was definitely worth the trip.
Where to Stay in Cienfuegos
In the centre of Cienfuegos I stayed in Casa Fenix, and loved it. They currently have just one room for rent, with a double and a single bed. The owners Odelys and Sergio are fabulous, very friendly and knowledgeable about the area. Odelys is a school teacher here so many locals have either passed through her class, or have kids who have done, so she is a good person to know.
We settled into the ‘routine’ of having a huge breakfast with Odelys of a plate of fruit, juice, coffee, omelette, ham, and a cheese toastie plus bread and jam and a delicious sweet peanut kind of fudge, then just one meal during the afternoon which would last us until the following breakfast!
Where to Eat in Cienfuegos
Further down the road from Casa Fenix is a great restaurant, Mamparas, with large meals for under $5 which will fill you up for the afternoon. The main avenue Prado is filled with restaurants and people strolling around at all hours of the day and night.
Here you will also find one of my favourite restaurants in Cuba, Doña Nora. I had the delicious seafood soup, and Cuban classic dish Ropa Vieja (stewed & shredded beef in a red wine sauce, served with rice and black beans, vegetables and salad). I was stuffed, and very satisfied! Including a drink this cost $10 CUC and was well worth it!
Coppelia is the classic ice-cream joint in Cuba, and has a branch on the corner of Prado & Argeulles streets. There are plenty of other options on the boulevard off the main square too. Eating in your casa for a night is a good option to consider, most of the casa owners cook very well!
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A good choice for a night out is the little bar next to the Theatre in the main square. Touts will approach you during the day, claiming to be salsa teachers there, and will rapidly become your best friend if you show up. Try to avoid them as you’ll end up paying a commission to them on your entrance fee. We watched a live band here then attempted to dance salsa, but mostly just watched the locals spin each other round with dizzying displays and obscenely fast footwork. Cubans certainly move in a different way to us Europeans!!
We also heard about Cubanisimo which was recommended to us as a cool night spot, but we didn’t make it there.
Where to go Next
Trinidad is a good next stop after Cienfuegos, with taxi colectivos running regularly from the Viazul bus station to the centre of Trinidad. They will generally charge $6 CUC per person, but find people to share with & you could push them down to $5 CUC each, which is cheaper than the bus.
Santa Clara is another option too, either for a day trip or as a next stop. We took a local camion to Santa Clara and back, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, although it was incredibly cheap, and a truly Cuban way to travel, we were deafened by the sound of screeching breaks on the truck, and achey and sore after bouncing around for 2 hours in a busy truck. Luckily the driver had taken pity on us & allowed us to board first so at least we had a seat. Others weren’t so lucky & had to endure the trip standing up.
Overall, Cienfuegos was one of my favourite cities in Cuba. Although not as pretty as Trinidad, or as peaceful as Viñales, Cienfuegos has something for everyone, and is well worth a visit! Be sure to add it to your Cuba itinerary.
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